If you read teen books, or have teenagers who read books, you probably know the name Sarah Dessen. She’s the author of novels including Someone Like You, Just Listen, The Truth About Forever, Along for the Ride, and What Happened to Goodbye. The 2003 movie How to Deal, starring Mandy Moore, was based on her first two books. NPR listed four of her works on last year’s 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels list. Dessen currently has more than 8 million books in print, more than 220,000 Twitter followers, and has been dubbed “something of a rock star in young adult fiction” by the Los Angeles Times. Today marks another milestone for the author, the release of her 11th novel, The Moon and More, from Viking Juvenile. The funny thing is, she never started out thinking she’d write Y.A. When she sold her first book in 1994, she was a 24-year-old waitress at a restaurant called The Flying Burrito. That Summer would come out in 1996, and it would change the course of her life.
The Moon and More takes readers back to Colby, the beach town that’s a favorite setting for Dessen. This time she hones in on the locals who live there year-round, considering what it’s like to live one’s whole life in a place where others are tourists (so it’s pretty much a perfect beach read). Her main character, Emaline, is in the summer between high school and college when she begins to wonder whether what she always thought she wanted is really good enough. This latest novel is “about relationships more than anything, between you and your family, and how there’s change in the period right after high school,” Dessen told me when we spoke in the midst of BEA madness and before she started her book tour. “Emaline’s got her whole life ahead of her. As adults, we can say that’s wonderful. But for a teen, that can seem so scary.” And therein lies one of the key secrets to the author's success: While she’s grown up, become a mother, published 11 books, and ostensibly left the trials and tribulations of her teen years behind, she still remembers keenly how it feels to be young.
Part of this may be that Dessen still lives in the town she grew up in, Chapel Hill, where her parents were both professors at the University of North Carolina. She wasn’t the student you might expect of college professor parents. “I dropped out of the first college I went to,” she told me. “That’s very embarrassing. I followed a convoluted route. I worked, I went to UNC Chapel Hill, and my world opened up and I found my place.” She started writing in afternoons after her morning job and before she waited tables at night. Now, she continues her afternoon writing schedule, usually putting in about two hours a day. “Some days are great and some are miserable,” she says. “You’d think I’d have figured it out by now, but there’s no manual.” She shows her early writing to no one save her agent, and though she’s working on a new book now, told me she’s “terrified to talk about it: I started it, it wasn’t going in the right direction, and I had to cut and go in a different direction. I can get in my own way.”
Though she’s past it now, high school and the trying years that followed are an ever-present reality for Dessen as she’s remained in the same town, now driving her child to school instead of going there herself. But that has been fodder for her writing. “I always said I hated high school and couldn’t wait to leave—I was the girl who got dumped senior year and was crying in the library—but the flip side to that is, I can rewrite my happy ending,” she says.
In the nearly 20 years since Dessen sold her first book, the young adult category has changed immensely, becoming far more popular and mainstream, particularly with the arrival of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. “There weren't a lot of things to compare it to back then,” says Dessen. “Judy Blume, that was the comparison, not that I was Judy Blume!” Slowly, bookstores realized that teens didn’t want their reading to be grouped in with the kids’ books. Y.A. sections, and communities, sprung up, and even adults realized that “good stuff” was being written in the category. Now, she says, women who pored over her books when they were in high school are coming up to her at readings to tell her they still read her books now. “I don’t like to categorize books,” she says. “If it’s good, I’m going to like it. And if you were ever in high school, you’ll probably find something you can relate to in Y.A. Just give it a chance!”
She may not like to categorize, but she does love writing for a Y.A. audience. “I feel so fortunate. It didn’t start out that way. I had a young narrator, and my agent was like, ‘This should be Y.A., just trust me.’” She did, and it worked. “I couldn’t be in a better place for me and my voice,” she says, referring to her job with a sense of awe. “I have a hard time admitting it’s what I do, as if, if I say it, it will disappear.” As we talk, she lists the benefits in writing for young adult readers: They’re not jaded, they’re passionate, they’re connecting with reading, and they have made her into a better writer, forcing her to be more concise and cut out any slack. Of course, readers of all ages can appreciate the benefits of well-crafted Y.A.—and older readers may especially appreciate the distance it allows to re-live one’s teen experiences without the intensity and vulnerability of youth.
If you haven’t read any Dessen yet, she recommends you start with The Truth About Forever, about a girl who’s struggling with her relationship with her mom following the death of her father. It addresses the effort to “be perfect” and remain in control, topics that will resonate with teens and adults. But you can start with any Dessen book you like, she says: The Moon and More, with its story of the pressures we feel about the choices we make in early adulthood—the fear that what we do may not be good enough—or Dreamland, which deals with a girl who’s in an abusive relationship, a story that Dessen built with recollections about her own high school friends. Her books deal with themes both light and dark, and she usually alternates between novels. “It’s so easy for me to put myself back in that place,” she says of her teen years. “I felt isolated and lost, I had great parents but I pushed them away, I felt that people didn’t understand. It’s not that hard to get back there.”
Whether her readers are young or old, had a perfect high school experience or, like far more of us, a confusing and sometimes troubled one, Dessen’s message is one of empowerment and seizing the day. At the same time, she admits that even though her life might seem enviable, nothing’s perfect: “It’s still hard for me. I still have days I consider different careers.” Whatever point of life you’re in, her advice is to remember that high school is short, but life is long. “There’s more than one way to grow up. Not everyone has to follow the same trajectory. You are your own person. It’s not what way is the right way,” she says. “There’s one way that’s right for you.”